The Legacy of Jessica McClintock

Fashion historians can talk about classic styles, definitive outfits, and remarkable designers until they’re blue in the face, but a humble Gunne Sax dress seems to outlast them all with its quaintness, audaciousness, and romanticism.  A Gunne Sax dress is a dressed down and nonchalant kind of finery.  It embodies a longing for a dream world, a sense of nostalgia attached to a sense of ‘what used to be’ that is their great appeal…incidentally also something to be found (in some degree) in every generation.  The persevering passion over this style of dressing, which has seen a renewed comeback over the last year, is made all the more poignant with the recent passing of Jessica McClintock (as of February 16, 2021).  

She was the brains behind crafting a popular American version of the English Laura Ashley style.  She had enough of a thumb on her times (70’s and 80’s) to use ingenuity to propel her both her Gunne and later independent McClintock brand to something anchored in the bedrock of fashion history.  This, my tribute to her long lasting legacy, was already crafted last year, yet only now I have a strong spur in my side to post this very special, pet project.  Much time, attention to detail, and emotional connection was poured into this venture.  Yet, often it’s the exceptional things I sew which are the ones I also am the most reluctant to share…and this project certainly falls in such a category.  By interpreting anew a kind of dressing that permeated my childhood and curated my lifelong taste in clothes, I have come full circle…and I just have to share this benchmark moment!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  All vintage printed 100% cottons from the early 1980s (I can tell by the selvedge stamps)

PATTERN: Vogue #9076, year 2015

NOTIONS:  Except for the thread and interfacing, all other notions are true vintage from the 1930s.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This dress was finished on December 9, 2020 after over 40 hours (lovingly) spent.

THE INSIDES:  From the waist and up is lined, and the skirt seams are cleanly covered in bias tape.

TOTAL COST:  I acquired the fabrics for this dress through a vintage shop that was going out of business last year on account of the pandemic.  A whole big box of fabrics was $25, and these were some of the many cuts in there.  This whole dress cost me mere pittance.

I just have to admit it to all of you – I am old enough to just remember the frilly, feminine, prairie dresses when they were the original fad (circa 1969 to 1989).  This was before they became cliché, only to eventually transform into the stylish trend of post-pandemic life.  Hello, “cottage core” and the “Target Dress Challenge” fads of today…what you’re pushing is really not a completely new thing, as many seem to half-acknowledge when they call it “retro”.  The source for this ‘look’ comes from a respectable designer label of less than 50 years ago.  It is not gonna be as attractive as can be when it is reworked through the cheap “fast fashion” means and thought of as costumes from “Little House on the Prairie”.  Hey, I understand we all need some fun and laughter nowadays, but no rehashing can come close to the beauty of a true Gunne Sax…unless I hope you’re talking about my version here. 

I sincerely hope I have given McClintock’s vision true justice here.  Sure, I’ll admit I did use a modern pattern to make my dress.  Nevertheless, it had all the trademarks classic to a Gunne Sax.  I hate to brag but I’ve worn my dress to a vintage shop which primarily sells such an aesthetic and they thought I was wearing a true Gunne.  Cue the internalized glee!  You have no idea how special this dress project is to me, and how successful I was at bringing a perception to life is the cherry on the top.

Her label’s offerings had an admirable excess of materials and perfection of detail not commonly associated with more modern ready-to-wear.  I needed almost 7 yards of material to make my version – 6 ½ yards of the 45” width floral print and ½ yard of the contrast blue!  Nevertheless, Gunne Sax original items were also created with easy-care materials at a modest price point for a universal appeal and accessibility.  As I mentioned in my “Facts” info above, my dress is all cotton, and being a vintage thrift find, too, it was luckily a bargain for all this yardage (which would otherwise generally be expensive).  The print has the classic “cabbage roses” which are quintessential for both Jessica McClintock as well as the decade of the 1980s.

She incorporated qualities of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, with a bit of Renaissance touches, to her designs – high collars, lace, and loads of buttons.  This was very anti-establishment and a bold experiment for the times.  Just think about how stark of a difference a Gunne Sax is from the proper 50’s styles or the Mod 60’s fashions.  Yet, the early 70’s was also riding off of the liberated ideals of the Flower Child and Ossie Clark explosion of the late 60’s.  Anything goes as far as style today, when leaving the house is an occasion in itself.  I say a Gunne Sax has to be one of the best ways to be ultimately comfy but still pretty in an instant.  One of these kind of dresses is like being in a princess dream while awake.

It all started for Jessica McClintock about 1969 when she invested $5,000 from her savings and became partners with Eleanor Bailey, who was the head of design and production for the Gunne Sax Company.  According to Bailey’s son, the name was a somewhat ‘sexy’ adaptation of the gunny sack – rough, burlap bags used for potatoes and sack races (info from here).  Eleanor soon stepped down, leaving McClintock to head the (then) small local San Francisco dress boutique.  McClintock refined the prairie style of the offerings into something “incorporating romance and beauty, and an elegant sensuality, into every product she designed” (from her obituary).  Very soon after she began selling profitably internationally, even branching out into offering nightwear and perfume. 

The first store under her own label, Jessica McClintock, was opened in San Francisco in 1981, which then fully merged with and took over the Gunne Sax line in 1987.  Many women who were teens and twenty-somethings in the 80’s (or even 90’s) know her line of dresses as the coveted, ideal prom pick or a preferred choice for a casual outdoor wedding event – all more formal wear than her previous line.  In 1997, “Women’s Wear Daily” ranked her brand under the “Top 100 most recognized”, ranked as the 7th behind Cartier and Tiffany.  McClintock once joked that she probably used more lace in her offerings than any other label.  In 2013, after 43 years in fashion, Jessica quietly decided to retire at 83, yet she continued to be a part of the brand under the direction of her son Scott.

My mom made most of my nice clothes for me as a child (before my teen years), as I mentioned in my previous post where I said how the color blue frequently appeared in my wardrobe.  Well, this project has several different shades of blue!  I made a few of my casual clothes myself back then, and I overall liked that most of my wardrobe had a general theme of lots of lace, pretty colors, quaint cotton prints…all features common to a Gunne Sax.  I even had ruffled pantaloons to wear under my childhood dresses!  Just because I was too young for a trend that was popular for girl 10 or more years older than me (at that time) doesn’t mean my mother and I were not fashion conscious enough to incorporate it into my younger styles!  As a teen, my sewing skills were not up to the details incorporated into a Gunne Sax, thus making my own back then was out of the question…but then again I did not have an occasion to need something like that anyway.  Now, all these years later, such is no longer the case!

Sadly, I have not yet handled or seen in person a true Gunne Sax dress to have a baseline for my re-interpretation.  They are much too popular and pricey right now for me to be able to do that.  Buying one for myself back when they were out sadly did not happen either.  However, I have studied pictures of many originals offered through Etsy, Instagram, or Pinterest and I have heard that they are often cleanly lined inside.  Being a Vogue, the pattern I used calls for full bodice lining and exhaustive details already, making a lie out of the “easy” rating on the envelope back.  There isn’t any complex technique called for per se, it’s just a lot of tight corners, precise stitching, and intricate piecing required.  This was a pattern worthy of becoming a Gunne Sax!  I chose the view C dress with the puffier sleeves and wider cuffs of view A.  Then I also added a wide ruffle at the skirt hem to make the skirt longer and more like popular Gunne styles of the late 70’s and 80’s.

I feel that I “improved” the slightly poor instructions in certain places to achieve cleaner finish.  Firstly, you are instructed to sew in the bodice lining in such a way that most of the seams, including the waistline, is exposed.  With just a little extra step, and some forethought, I have my bodice lining cover the inner body raw edges.  A clean inside adds so very much to the wonderful experience of this fantastic dress as a whole.  It would be a shame – in my opinion – to go through all the bother of making its exhaustive detailing and leave out one or two little touches which will add nothing visibly impressive yet something so special to see for your own personal pride.  Besides, a cleanly finished inside is so much more comfortable to wear.  A bulky waist seam is always better for comfortable wearing enjoyment when it can be covered if you’re going to add lining anyways.

Secondly, I know how much of a pain making tiny bias loops are in the first place, and how hard it is to have them become small loop closures which both actually stay in place and look nice.  I could see such a closure being bulky along the front and you can’t clip the extra allowance down because (as some blog reviewers sadly experienced) the loops will have a tendency to slip out of the seam.  After noting the details on true Gunne Sax dresses, I opted for something similar and used vintage loop tape. 

I bought this vintage loop tape understanding it to be from the 1930s on account of the decorative cotton twill tape which is the base for the loops.  I do believe the dating to be true after finding the exact same notion on one of my 1930s negligees.  Yay!  This makes the front closing daintier, lends my make to be especially unique, and is considerably more stable of a closing than bias fabric loops.  Practically speaking, nevertheless, there really wasn’t much fabric leftover to turn into button closings.  I hand stitched the trim down just along the underside edge of the finished right front closure.  It was too pretty of a notion to bury in the seam during construction.

However, a Gunne Sax is never overly straightforward, but always has a tasteful amount of unnecessary flourish.  To match with the 30’s era loop tape, I chose a vintage cotton lace trim to add to most of the seams where the contrast panels join the main dress fabric.  This was sold to me as a 1910s to 1930s era vintage notion, and the unusual feel of the cotton, the slight fading of the color, the irregularity of the design, and the intricate detail to the trim all lead me to believe this dating.  Still, I’m not 100% positive this is correct. Either way, I was ecstatic over the way it was the perfect match in color.  I love the way it adds the right amount of detail without also being fussy or distracting.  It nicely blends in the transition between the two fabrics.  It mirrors the way almost every classic Gunne Sax has decorative trimming along the bodice seams.  After seeing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ the trim was added to my dress, I was blown away at how adding the perfect notion can help a project pop.  I had 3 ¾ yards of the lace on hand and I had only 3 inches leftover when I was done.  It was luckily just enough length to work!

A Gunne Sax has an aesthetic of yesteryear, so I added vintage, Depression-era carved pearl buttons from the stash of my Hubby’s Grandmother.  Yes, more 1930s notions!  I sewed them down right alongside the seam where the underlap goes on the left side.  (The underlap covers up any gape along the button closure.)  My sleeve cuffs do feature non-working buttons, however.  I used buttons which were somewhat imperfect (that’s all I had left after finding 9 matching ones for the front) and I didn’t want any more fuss to work with just to get dressed.  I can roll my hands together to make them smaller and just slide the sleeves on but yet they are still snug enough to fit fine during a wearing.  One little bit of a cut corner isn’t going to hurt, right?

After all this, don’t get me wrong, though – I always chose very modern, bold, bright colored things when it came to my fashion modeling for department stores, my choice of a bicycle, or kind of Barbie doll I preferred in my grade school years.  Yet, Jessica McClintock often spoke of her belief that “Romance is a beauty that touches the emotional part of our being.”  The frilly, dreamy garments from my childhood are the ones which remind me of memorable occasions which were part of what makes the ‘me’ of today. 

Based on the year printed along the selvedge of the main fabric, I am dating this dress to 1982, which is before I even existed.  Nevertheless, the pandemic has helped me embrace my past and appreciate my loved ones in new ways. 

Sewing my own Gunne Sax is one of the many avenues I can tangibly materialize such familial nostalgia…which is why I’m wearing my childhood locket necklace, too.  I received this as a gift from my parents when I was 13.  Inside, it still has the old pictures of my mom and my dad back from when we had an unforgettably fun family vacation the year after.  

For better or for worse, it’s funny how what we wear can be so inexorably tied to the affections and reminiscences of life!  I know I will have many new, wonderful memories in the future while wearing this old-style Gunne Sax recreation of mine!  As the phrase for the modern McClintock brand says – every day is a celebration of life.  There is yet another McClintock dress in the works as I write this…

Channeling Crawford’s Adrian

I realize the strong shoulders of the 1940s decade is an intimidating turnoff for many, but I embrace them in all their forms.  For whether they are obnoxious or poufy as they can be or just plain sharply tailored, I see the 40’s strong shoulder line as not only a crucial part of the fashion in, before, and after the WWII decade, but also a very interesting garment point often neglected.   Such can be as fun to perfect as they are even more entertaining to see and construct in all its differing varieties.

A strong, exaggerated shoulder line can do wonders for certain body shapes, as I think it does for mine.  Although I am border line petite (just over 5 feet tall), I do not feel that my waist and hips are small enough in proportion to the rest of me, so the appearance of wider shoulders creates an illusion of the ideal body lines (tiny hips and waist).  This is nothing new…I am just copying off of what worked for the famous actress Joan Crawford, when the equally famous Adrian used this same “trick” as what had been done in the 1830s and 1890s to distract the public eye away from conceived body faults about the midsection and create a certain image.  As famous as well-known as both those names are, they had figured out something spot on that we who are in no manner Hollywood sweethearts can still imitate to our advantage.  From a fascination of Crawford’s high, dramatic hairstyles to my amazement for Adrian’s penchant of precise pin striped garments, from the basic need for warm winter wear to the desire for an unusual item to try and sew, I have combined it all to end up with something that is an unexpected way to power through the cold!

This jumper dress was made for a recent trip to visit the historic garment district in Kansas City, Missouri for the exhibit “Suited Up: Tailored Menswear, 1900 to 2017”.  This section of town is claimed to have been (at one time), second only to New York in breadth of territory!  This cozy outfit let me be a wintertime tourist in handmade, menswear-inspired style!  My shoes were very comfy for all day walking – they are Chelsea Crew brand “Gala” heels, reproduction vintage spectators.  My blouse underneath is a resale store item, but my jewelry is true vintage from my Grandmother.  I realize that all put together like I am, this is a more obviously vintage outfit than most other dated fashions that I make and wear, but I’d like to think that it is a statement enough to be attractive in its own way.  I believe the general public that only relies on RTW is so ready for fashion to be something more appealing to them personally other than what is out there.

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  a heathered brown pure wool with an ivory pin striping

PATTERN:  Simplicity #1238, year 1944, a jumper-dress

NOTIONS:  The main notion used – the numerous buttons down the front – are a prized vintage card authentic to the 1940’s which had been found at our favorite local antique store.  The rest of what I needed – the thread, interfacing, bias and hem tapes, as well as shoulder pads – are modern notions and were already in my stash of supplies.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was made in about 25 to 30 hours…I took my time to get details done just the way I wanted them!  It was finished on February 9, 2018.

THE INSIDES:  As this was pure wool, it was therefore rather a rather itchy fabric which would fray a lot at every raw edge.  Thus every seam was finished off with bias tape, with the hem covered in a lace tape for a fun and feminine finish!

TOTAL COST:  This wool was a gem of a fabric I found in my local Jo Ann’s Fabric store.  I don’t remember what the cost was purely because this kind of fabric is so lovely and hard to come by in brick-and-mortar stores here, so I had to have it regardless of cost.  Nevertheless, I had a discount coupon and 40’s patterns do not need a whole lot of fabric, so – for just over 2 yards I think I spent under $30.

Ah – Adrian and Crawford…one would not be as famous without the other, but I suggest Adrian owed more to Crawford than the other way around.  Crawford had been in movies since the 1920’s, but her broad shoulders served her well in the boyish and hip hugging fashions of the era – she was the right body for the mode of dressing then.  When the 1930’s came along and Crawford was starring in movies where she played as a softer, sexier and wildly talented woman, she needed a signature style to match in Hollywood.  In 1932, Crawford wore a dress designed by Gilbert Adrian know as the famous “Letty Lynton Dress”, a white organdie dress with big puffed sleeves which were covered in ruffles, to make her look feminine and demure.  It is often credited with being the first movie fashion to be widely copied and sold for the public.  Crawford’s wide shouldered dress gave the impression of a tiny waist and slim hips, and the illusion created by Adrian was suddenly in steady demand with popular fashion whether that garment was in a store, from a sewing pattern, created by a tailor, or from other designers.  This would last strongly through the 1940’s, recurring again in the 1980s, when heavily padded and extreme shoulders were common.  Crawford’s movie roles in the 40’s became harder, stronger, and frequently troubled, and so her large shoulder signature style stayed with her but changed to match until after Dior’s “New Look” styles became the craze.

In Adrian’s own story from the book, Creating the Illusion, he said that Crawford insisted on full freedom of movement with her arms, so much so that he had to leave excess fabric which was then padded to not appear sloppy.  I do notice that many 1940’s era vintage patterns leave extra room in the shoulders, and I regard that as room you need for shoulder pads!  But whether the use of padding came from Crawford’s fit preferences or Adrian’s direct styling for her body, between the two of them it is a silhouette and a technique that was influential and unmistakable.  Crawford was Adrian’s perfect outlet to manifest the genius of his talent.  It took the perfect actress in the perfect outfit to make the world notice her clothes to a point that the world how the copy that fashion for themselves.  Unlike today, the designers were something to think about afterwards, as the Academy Awards for Best Costume Design wasn’t started until 1948.  Adrian designed the costumes for Joan Crawford in more than twenty-eight movies.  Granted, he did wonders designing spectacular, mind blowing outfits for other actresses, but it is how Joan Crawford wore what he made that had a outreaching effect that is still being discussed and understood today.

Now, the original design for this jumper-dress on the envelope cover is much more understated than how mine turned out and I wanted it this way!  Since I was wearing this to see an exhibit on menswear, I wanted something strong and broad as the famous London-cut padded suit for guys of the early 40’s with a hint of the outspoken Zoot Suits.  Adrian himself was a perfectionist at suits and loved to show the height of his ability by having stripes show off the seam lines (see this 1948 suit at the New York MET museum for only one example).  Following these trains of thought, I also was tempted to add a welt pocket on the chest like a true suit, but as you can see I thought otherwise in the end.  I do love how my jumper dress ends up having a double collar, as I wear the shirt underneath on top of the jumper lapels to cover the wool and keep it from itching my neck.  This is better than a man’s vintage suit which doesn’t have this double collar benefit!  Sewing it was much easier than making a complete suit but has all the same feel as one in a dress version.

I have seen such a unique kind of clothing as a jumper-dress before in a few other 1940s and 1970s patterns and I really like the whole idea of it – a one-piece garment that can be worn with a blouse underneath like a jumper or still work being worn alone as a dress.  The famous actress Gene Tierney wears a very similarly styled jumper-dress, in a lovely light blue sans blouse underneath, in the 1945 movie “Leave Her to Heaven”.  The banded armscye (as this kind of shoulder extension that looks like a sleeve is called) was stiff and sticking out on its own on Gene Tierney, and I used heavy interfacing to copy that appearance.  However I have found an extant jumper-dress in rayon crepe that has a limp, unstructured banded armscye and it is amazing how one small detail as the weight of interfacing can change the whole “look”.  I have even seen a banded armscye which is highly decorated on this fancy 1940’s blouse, or one used upside down in this 1930’s evening gown.  The more you look at fashion from the past, the more you see the variety our modern RTW fashions are missing. 

The pattern for a banded armscye has the general shape of an almond because it is folded in half to be a double layer self-facing piece.  However, this “mock sleeve’’ needs to have a much lower dip, meaning the side seam is closed at a much lower point than regular garments with a true set-in sleeve.  There is a triangular insert piece that can be added to the bottom point of the armscye where it ends at the side seam, meant for when this is worn alone as a dress.  Of course, for this to be that versatile it would not be made from a wool but out of a gabardine, linen, or rayon of some sort, or something else multi-season with some body because I don’t like the ‘limp’ look of that extant dress I mentioned above.  You have to just go all the way for some styles like this – to carry off powerful fashion is obviously being committed to a style that is every bit as strong as you are…or want to be!  Crawford often said that she never went out anywhere unless she looked like “Joan Crawford the movie star”, so I’m supposing that this powerful fashion of hers was like being vested in more than clothing.  Clothing has been described as armor that makes us feel whole or keeps us safe from what brings us down.

The design was deceptively simple, really.  It wasn’t much harder than a shirt with a skirt attached, but it was the tailoring and details that I spend most of my time on to make this.  The layout required a large amount of brain power to have the stripes match as impeccably as an Adrian inspired garment could become.  I must say I was impressed at how well this pattern fit on me and came together, as some 1940s Simplicity patterns can be not that great, so the design deserves credit for my success – and I am quite pleased with this!  I love how the pin striping miters in at the seams, and even ended up matching so well where the darts meet the skirt at the waist.  I even somehow got the collar to match!  To highlight the design and lay around with the striping, I had the banded armscye be horizontal while the rest of the dress was generally vertical.  Adrian was a fan of a geometric approach to clothing.

Making all those buttonholes down the front and matching the buttons in place is and will always be such an exhausting thing to do for me, but every time I see such a garment finished it becomes so worth it in the end.  This garment is especially the case because I used an intact card of vintage buttons, which I was so excited yet reluctant to use.  It’s not that I want to just stash such treasures, or just hold onto them because they do not serve their intended purpose or get to shine just sitting in my collection!  It’s just somehow harder to incorporate an old notion into my modern vintage when I feel that I have to separate it from its lovely, dramatic, pristine display placement on a perfect condition button card.  Such notions like this remind me of how upscale and respected home sewing used to be, besides the fact that the quality of our modern notions have dramatically gone downhill!  The buttons match so well with the wool in color, but it seems to me that their complex face makes them a subtle but still noticeable detail.

I am quite proud of the statement 40’s hairstyle I pulled off with this outfit!  Joan Crawford seemed to wear her hair high up above her forehead on top her head frequently circa 1944 (see here and here), as did her fellow actresses Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard to name a few.  Their hair is similar but seems to be more of a comb over than an under roll like mine, making it closer to a Dorothy Gray style.  Realistically, I am not an actress and I needed a hairstyle to stay in place all day!  With a lot of hairspray and pins, it did stay!  Beseme brand “Red Velvet” lipstick completes the vintage look.

So – do you think you will try the over-emphasized shoulder look for yourself?  Do you love it the way I do?  Say yes to the shoulder pad!  Knit fabrics nowadays have people so used to a close body fit, but extra fabric and shoulder pads to structure the body can and does have its benefits if your body shape is something waist and below you’re self-conscious about.  1950s hip exaggeration works the other way around, making your waist and above seem smaller.  I’ll stop there.  All I’ll say is that’s the not-so-advertised benefit of vintage – you can choose an era or styles that work well to compliment your body!  What do you like yourself most wearing?  Are you on the camp of Bette Davis or on Joan Crawford when it comes to the subject of their long-lasting feud? (I’m neutral on that feud, BTW!)

Shopping at the Old Arcade

Most people generally know twenties clothing as being tubular with drop waists.  Many also frequently think of the twenties as having beading, sheer fabrics, and fringe, but that was for evening and special occasion.  However, do you know what the turn of the decade, year 1920, actually looked like for everyday wear?  When I started doing research on this I was surprised.  Very high waists, overly exaggerated hips (many with ruffles and ridiculous pockets), slightly awkward long mid-calf length hems, and loose but lovely bust-less blouses.  Yes – this was the year 1920, when women were wearing fashion which was both a carry-over from 1918 – 1919 that was also finding its way for changing up styles in a new decade.  Here is my sewing creation interpreting the year 1920, as a woman in her nice, almost sporty, and nothing-too-fancy clothes to go do some window shopping.
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Actual teens era/1920s hand painted glass buttons (close-up picture here on my Instagram) were included on the blouse I made, as well as several hours of decorative hand stitching on both neck and sleeves.  My hat is a thrift store purchase, which already had straw flowers, but I piled on a wide lace band and silk flowers for an old fashioned style.   I also made the skirt and the purse, as well as some of the authentic lingerie I’m wearing underneath.  This ensemble did not look right (silhouette speaking) until I had the correct undergarments, which I sewed myself as well (post for them here).

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Period authentic doesn’t have to be old-fashioned or un-wearable today.  Because it is all cotton and not body figure conscious, this is really quite comfy to wear.  Sure, it’s different, but yet lovely and tasteful enough for me to only receive kindly smiles from strangers who saw me.  I love the subtle complexity, the understated richness, and the odd femininity to the style of my 1920 pieces.  The ideal of beauty and the popular silhouette for women has changed so much throughout history, and this is just another incarnation that I am glad to have learned to appreciate through sewing it for myself!

THE FACTS:McCall 9412 & Pict.Review Overblouse, both ca. 1920, fm Past Patterns

FABRIC:  100% cotton specialty twill for the skirt, 100% cotton for the blouse, and a tapestry remnant (mystery content) for the purse lined in a burgundy Kona cotton leftover from this project.

PATTERNS:  Past Pattern’s No. 8268, Ladies’ Overblouse, from Pictorial Review circa 1920; a Past Pattern’s No. 9412 “Ladies’ Skirt with Hip Pocket Effect” from McCall Company circa 1920 , and a Vogue 7252 year 2000 patternVogue #7252 from the year 2000 for the purse

NOTIONS:  The notions for this came from everywhere.  The detailed, Art Nouveau-style brass buttons were a Hancock Fabrics’ store brand item, bought when the company was closing, while the old vintage blouse buttons were from our favorite antique store.  Most everything else needed was on hand – I even had the tassel for the purse in my stash!  

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The skirt was made in about 6 hours and finished on October 21, 2016.  The blouse took 8 to 10 hours, with 4 more hours for the hand embroidery, and was finished on February 26, 2017.  The purse was made in about 2 hours on February 28, 2017.

TOTAL COST:  The skirt’s fabric was bought at the now defunct Hancock Fabrics for less than $2 a yard…and I only needed 2 yards here.  I have 2 something extra yards still left for another (upcoming) project.  The blouse’s cotton was bought at JoAnn’s fabric recently for maybe $10.  The brass buttons were expensive even with the Hancock Fabrics closing clearance – maybe $17 – while the old buttons on the blouse were only $5.  The tapestry brocade came from I don’t know where from I don’t know how long ago, thus I’m counting it as free, but the cord handle was bought at JoAnn’s for about $4.  So, my total is about $40 something.

DSC_0232,p,a-comp,wWorking with patterns this old presented plenty of unknowns, but the primary one was in regards to fit.  What kind of body, what kind of peculiarities, and what ease do these patterns account for?  It’s one thing to get something to fit, but historical garments need a particular fit (as well as the right underwear) to be authentically worn.  I did have the assurance that my pattern came from Past Patterns Company…every single garment I have made from what they offer is a wonderful success I am most happy with.  No wonder they’ve been in business almost 40 years!

Let me start by talking about the bodice.  After some figuring, my estimated bust measurement of the blouse pattern as-is (in the size 38 to 40 bust) is 45 inch around.  This led to my figuring the wearing ease to this blouse was about 5 inches over and above the bigger of the two sizes (bust 40).  I can see that the bust is supposed to be bloused and roomy (over a flat chest) so I went down to a generous measurement for myself and ended taking out a total of 4 inches around hoping to end up at what would be the next size smaller for this pattern.  The side seam allowance is 1 whole inch so I figured I had plenty of room to fix a wrong calculation is sizing, but still…it’s easier to  take out some extra than it is to be stuck with a garment which ends up too small.  I totally feel like I nailed the right fit!

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I realized that this is an overblouse that I am not wearing as an overblouse.  This is not the first time I have made an over blouse only to wear it tucked into a skirt – see this 1958 project.  When I received my pattern in the mail Saundra Altman kindly included a tutorial page on how to add in a stay-belt inside the blouse.  As I am just getting the feel for teens and early 20’s dressing, I kept the construction of my blouse simple from the waist downPerry, Dame & Co Catalog, New York styles, fall and winter 1919-1920 because for now I plan on only wearing it as you see it.  At some future point I hope to make a year 1920-style pleated skirt and wear this same top as a proper overblouse, and at that point I might come back and add the welt pockets and a stay-band to the waist.

I did use my oldest (1930’s) sewing machine to do all the button holes along the front opening, but I also splurged and used all cotton thread and self-fabric bias tape for the neckline.  After I had made the button holes I decided I really didn’t want to subject the buttons to the wear and tear of pushing them through every time.  So, I still sewed two at a time connected like link buttons but they’re on there permanently for now, and if I want them off I’ll just cut the linking threads.  I did try to make these buttons linked by a metal loop with a connecting chain but I had disaster strike doing that.  The back loop on one broke by cracking right off, but it is a molded part of the rest of the button so it cannot be fixed unless I glue some loop or such on it.  I never guessed these were as fragile as they seem to be.  Until I figure out how to add something to the back of this broken button, I will sadly made-do with one at the top closure.  This is the risk of working with, or even wearing, old original items from many decades back – they are unique and fragile, but deserve to be seen nonetheless, so using them is a risk that also could only garners appreciation.

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My decorative hand stitching is I know not the best compared to many others, but this is so much better than I used to be able to do.  Whatever my skill, the stitching does take my blouse to the next level, I think, besides show casing an old time-honored practice that modern garments are so far from.  Hand stitching was very much needed here because of the rather plain color of the blouse’s cotton.  I made my own design, and after several unsuccessful Art Deco drawings I settled on the softer more feminine floral on my blouse.  After all King Tut’s tomb would not yet be discovered for a few years from 1920!

The skirt probably would’ve fit me pretty much as-is, but I did add one extra inch to the waistband only to be on the safe side for fit.  I did not change the rest of the skirt because I wanted the gathers to be a bit looser.  Looking back I wish I had made no gathers across the center front of the skirt – the pockets and the hip panel would look better.  No matter, I like it just the same! DSC_0297a-comp,w

The skirt did not need any special closures for the left side opening – the placket kind of conceals itself because of the side seam pleat overlay.  Only hook-and-eyes keep it together at the waistline.  The waistband is quite neat.  It is a two inch band against my skin on the inside, with a 4 inch waistband gathered horizontally on the outside so it looks like a cummerbund belt.

DSC_0220a-comp,wTrue to the era, the back of the skirt is just a long rectangle for a small taste of the slim and skinny.  What a contrast for the front!  Along the front geometric pocket edge I made my own self-fabric “ribbon” to decorate, finish, and stabilize the edge.  At first I tried a brown velvet ribbon for the edge, but, no – I didn’t look good so I took it off and went with the matching fabric.  This pocket edge needs to be stiff enough to stick out on its own and define the hips so I was tempted to add interfacing.  My skirt’s twill fabric was thick enough that three layers along the edge (1 – the skirt, 2 – the ribbon edging seam allowance inside, 3 – outside of the ribbon edging) was plenty good.

Needless to say, as much as I love pockets, these take the cake! My skirt’s pockets are like mini suitcases.  I can keep everything in them and it doesn’t even make a difference the skirt is so roomy and meant to be billowy.  Yet, the only thing that mystifies me about my 1920 outfit is the pockets, mostly because the purses and hand bags were so tiny!  Pockets and purses were still relatively new items to 1920, and both signifying the independence and progression of women, but to go overboard with such a contrast between the two in interesting to me.  As you can see, I did take a slight shortcut and have the pocket opening close with a snap rather than a real working button and button hole.

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Patterns for both the skirt and the blouse both seemed to run very long.  I made the shorter length of the overblouse, which was just over 10 inches shorter than the full-length option, and it is still falls about mid-thigh on me.  For my skirt, I took out 4 whole inches from the length because as-is the pattern falls to floor length (I’m about 5’ 3” height).  Now, take into account the fact that these two garments are meant to have deep hems, especially the skirt.  My skirt does have a wide 3 inch hem to it which helps to weigh it down properly besides bringing it to the proper just-below-calf length for the year 1920.  Skirt and dress lengths of 1920 seem to be just enough to show the ankles, just enough to move freely in, and a tad shorter than just a year or two before (1919-ish).1916 purses

My purse is something so easy but I’m so tickled at how lovely and cute it turned out.  The pattern I used is a real unknown gem with lovely designs straight out of the teens and 20’s.  I remember my mom and I being so excited when this came out!  Look at this comparison between a 1916 handbag poster for comparison.  In a 1926 catalog, I’ve even seen a strikingly similar version to “View C”!  They are all really quite simple designs but I like the fact they give the tracing designs for all the beading and decoration.  My purse doesn’t hold much but came together so quickly.  Trimmings and de-luxe materials seems like the way to go with this pattern and a remnant was all I needed.  I will definitely be using this again!

In the 1920’s, handbags were often just enough room for a few small essentials (including lipstick and keys) and often geometric in shape, like my own vers ion.  Mine is probably way too stuffed than what a 1920 woman would have carried, yet as it was I didn’t have room for everything I needed!  Also in the 1920’s, handbags weren’t necessarily meant to match with an outfit but carry their own tasteful, individual, and often ostentatious flair…quite different from modern times!

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By making my purse (a ‘reticule’ style) from tapestry I am harkening back to a popular type of “daytime” purses of the 1920s – ones made of richly complex fabric carpet bags and delicately flourished needlepoint.  Handbags from these materials seem to either be meant to show the wealth of the one possessing it or the talent of the maker, as many of these types of purses were often handmade by either the woman herself or someone for the company that sold it and some were quite expensive.  By having a decorative tassel at the center bottom point I’m aiming to narrow this to a primarily early 20’s piece.  To read and see more, this “Vintage Dancer” page has a wonderful overview of all the ways 1920’s women carried what they needed.  There is so much history to this littlest part of my ensemble!

All the materials I used for this outfit are just a dream to wear and were wonderful to sew.  The twill for the skirt is a lovely weight and hand – almost as heavy as a denim, slight body, but drapey and soft enough to hang nicely.  The low-key design of the fabric adds interest and keeps the olive and brown tones to it from being too drab.  The cotton of the blouse is so soft it doesn’t really wrinkle all that much and it’s just sheer enough to be pretty.  The tapestry of the purse is so rough, textured, and stiff it provides a nice contrast to the blouse and skirt.

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The place of our photo shoot is something quite special.  Not only is it a city landmark and the town’s best example of Gothic Revival architecture, but it is a National Historic Landmark.  I’m talking about the St. Louis Arcade/Wright Building, opened in year 1919 as one of the very first indoor shopping areas of its kind in the country, a very early, but much more elegant version of the modern American suburban, indoor, covered “Mall”.  Just think how extraordinary this is from a historical standpoint – plans for this steel and stone skyscraper was begun in 1913 before World War I and many of the materials needed for this building were rationed.  Federal officials closed and postponed many construction operations during WWI.  It is rumored that the principle contractor apparently had a simultaneous deal with the government at the time, so I suppose he was able to pull a few strings.  The Arcade was the tallest building in the world for a number of years.  Besides, the architect, Tom Barnett, was something quite important nationally.  This multi-story hall was recently renovated (after being vacant for several decades), preserving much original pieces so that the Arcade can still give visitors a taste of what it might have been in its heyday when people came here for high-end purchases such as jewelry and fine china.  Being able to walk through and visit places like this in period authentic clothes makes sewing this outfit a very worthwhile experience.

DSC_0295aa-comp,wP.S. Good news…you don’t necessarily have to sew if you want this ‘look’!  ReVamp vintage has re-made an amazing year 1921 oversized pocket skirt very similar to my own, the “Prudence” with brownish olive twill and lovely details!  Although, there are a few ways to wear a modern take on such a style – “Dress Romantic” on Etsy marketplace has a neat version that’s my favorite!  As for ready-to-wear 1920 style blouses, ReVamp has lovely options but any loose modern blouse with lace and/or feminine details would work – my favorites are this Anthropologie yellow blouse, this J.Crew cream colored pleated neckline blouse, or this sheer smocked neckline top.  There’s always old originals out there, too, (like this one) for a taste of the real thing!  Will you be channeling the early 1920’s for yourself, or have you already?

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